El Clasico Preview: Can Real Madrid End Barcelona’s Invincible Season?

El Clasico is one of the most heated rivalries in world soccer. The battle between the two preeminent teams in Spain is about more than table position. It has always stood outside the league (or the Copa del Rey or the Champions League) as a battle between the titans of Spain. It’s heightened not only by sport-centric factors such as the sides’ differing approaches to team building and player development, but by the wider world of politics and culture as well. El Clasico is one of the few rivalries in the world that truly transcends sports.

Throw the Standings Out the Window

The weight of El Clasico’s matchup is important because there isn’t actually a lot on the line this year. Barcelona (26-0-8, 86 points in La Liga) have long clinched the title, and they’re 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid with a game in hand. Real Madrid (21-5-8, 75 points), meanwhile, have a Champions League final to focus on. If Real Madrid win Europe’s biggest knockout tournament for the third time in a row and the fourth time in five years, a disappointing domestic season will soon be forgotten. So what if Madrid are in third place in the league, 15 points behind their archrivals? Champions League glory beckons.

That’s not to say there’s nothing riding on the match, which kicks off at 2:45 p.m. ET on Sunday. Barcelona (-148) are four games from an undefeated season. The constant sky-high expectations that Lionel Messi (pictured above) and Co. face mean that even though they are all but certain to win two titles this season — they’ve already won Spain’s domestic cup in addition to cruising toward the La Liga crown — going undefeated is the only way this season won’t feel like a disappointment. Despite all of Barcelona’s success, the disastrous quarterfinal defeat to Roma in the Champions League still hangs over their head, and it’s the kind of result that only a nice cleansing victory over a bitter rival can help soothe.

Barcelona Are Better, But By How Much?

Over the course of the season, Barcelona have clearly been better than Real Madrid (+371). Barcelona have scored more goals, 87 to 82, and conceded fewer, 21 to 37. And while their respective expected goals tallies suggest that Barcelona have run hot over the course of the season while Real Madrid have run cold, Barcelona remain the better side, though just barely. Expected goals predict Real Madrid to have scored just over 84 goals, while Barcelona is predicted to trail slightly with almost 83. Defensively, though, Barcelona are the better side by expected goals, with the Catalonian outfit predicted to have conceded between 34 and 35, while Madrid are at almost 40. The full-season stats paint a pretty accurate picture of a Barcelona team that is a little better than Madrid, even though the gap in the standings suggests a much larger difference.

Form Guide

However, a look at slightly more recent history suggests a different story. Since Jan. 1, Barcelona has played 17 games, and Madrid 18. Despite having a game in hand, Barcelona have 41 points to Madrid’s 40. So far, so good. But then things start to get ugly. Barcelona have scored 10 fewer goals than Real Madrid, 42 to 52, but they’ve conceded nine fewer, 14 to 23.

 

Turn to expected goals, however, and it seems clear that Madrid have a decided advantage in 2018. Since January, expected goals predict that they should have scored just over 44, while Barcelona should have notched just under 35. Defensively, however, the teams are much tighter, as Madrid is expected to have conceded around 24 and Barcelona around 21. So while both teams have had their shooting boots on over the last four months, exceeding expected goals by about seven, Barcelona have also benefited from great bounces on the defensive side of the ball, allowing six fewer goals than predicted, while Madrid has been about even.

Under the Hood

The numbers suggest two different things. For starters, based on underlying performance, there’s no reason to think Barcelona is playing better than Madrid at the moment. Whatever weird shooting slump Real Madrid were mired in to start the season, it’s clearly long behind them. Specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo has woken up from the extended nap he took during the tail end of 2017. Since the calendar turned, he has 20 goals in 13 games, almost five more than expected goals predict. That’s night and day from the 12 games he played in La Liga in 2017, in which he scored only four goals despite expected goals predicting almost 10.

Secondly, the numbers suggest a Barcelona team that is, to put it simply, dull. As the season has worn on, Barcelona’s conservative possession game has become more of a burden. They have by far the most possession in La Liga, with a 60.4% rate. Most of that, however, is simply because they are good at keeping the ball. They play an astounding 44 more accurate short passes per game than anybody else, with 525. Madrid are second with 481. And despite having over 60% of the ball while Madrid have under 58% possession, Madrid outshoot Barcelona 18.7 per game to 15.5, and 11.5 to 8.9 in the 18-yard box.

The Last Hurrah

There is good reason for Barcelona to have adopted this more conservative style, and clearly it’s working for the undefeated team. Andres Iniesta is 33, and next year he’ll be off to more forgiving pastures in China. Sergio Busquets is only 29, but he’s suffered a series of minor injuries over the last several years that have reduced his range and mobility in midfield. Last year’s Barcelona side came apart because they couldn’t control midfield firmly enough, and teams began to be able to pass through and break the stranglehold they traditionally have on a game.

This year, Ivan Rakitic spends most of his time playing next to Busquets to better control the flow of the game. But that means the system has largely shifted from a 4-3-3 with an attacking trio to a 4-4-2 (sometimes more 4-2-2-2, but the distinction is a narrow one). There’s simply less attacking thrust to the side. They focus on keeping the ball, and they rely on Messi and forward Luis Suarez to create goals. Given how good Messi and Suarez can be, that works on most days, but it’s not nearly the swashbuckling attack of past seasons.

 

Barcelona’s change stands in stark comparison to Real Madrid, who remain more or less the same team they’ve been over the last several seasons. Ronaldo continues to be one of the most lethal strikers in the game. He now haunts back lines, peeling off toward the back post to finish headers and popping up in pockets of space to rocket home cutbacks. And while manager Zinedine Zidane has experimented with a number of different formations and lineup choices, the game plan is always clear: overwhelm the opposition with talent, bury them under a mountain of shots and trust that Ronaldo and Co. will score enough goals to win.

Putting A Bow On It

What this all means for Sunday’s match is unclear. When the two teams met in Madrid in December, Barcelona waltzed to a 3-0 lead, thanks in part to a red card on Real Madrid right back Dani Carvajal. Neither team has been in great league form recently. Madrid has eked out one-goal wins against minnows Leganes and Malaga sandwiched around a draw at home against Athletic Bilbao. Barcelona, meanwhile, blew a two-goal lead against Deportivo before Messi rescued them by scoring twice after the 80th minute to complete a hat trick in a 4-2 win. And the week before that, they blew a pair of leads on the way to a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo.

To the degree that any side running away with the league while remaining undefeated can limp to the finish line, Barcelona is doing just that. Meanwhile, though Real Madrid might struggle occasionally, the team continues to pick up results. They haven’t been nearly as far behind Barcelona this season as results might suggest, and they’ve even been a little bit better over the second half of the season. Winning at Camp Nou and ending Barcelona’s perfect season is exactly the kind of result that would reflect that. Madrid are going to come out firing on all cylinders, while Barcelona will attempt to keep possession and control the game. Barcelona are going to try to eke out a boring result, but Madrid seem primed not to let them.


All odds current as of Friday evening.

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